A Captain Unafraid, A New Documentary

In a guest post, the film-maker and musician, Charlie O’Brien, discusses the inspiration for his new documentary, “A Captain Unafraid“, examining the life and legacy of the late 19th century Irish-American sailor and adventurer, Johnny O’Brien, hero of Cuba’s 1895-1898 War of Independence.


O’Reilly Street, Havana

The first I thing I read about Johnny O’Brien was an article, John Dynamite “Marine Mambí”, by Cuban historian José Antonio Quintana. I wrote a song, “Marine Mambí”, inspired by Quintana’s lively piece. From this humble beginning I found myself following Johnny’s trail from Cavan to Cuba, and Arkansas to New York. All this research and rambling was conducted through the lens of the documentary film, “A Captain Unafraid”.

Johnny was involved in revolution and ruction across the Americas. From Texas to Mexico, and from Honduras to Haiti, he supplied many fledgling republics with arms. When speaking of his own country’s neutral stance during the Cuban War of Independence he said,

“…certainly it does not come with good grace from a country which prides itself on the principal that the will of the people is the law of the land to say to its neighbours that it shall not oppose tyranny and fight with every means in their power for what they believe to be their rights. We Americans should not forget that we were rebels once ourselves, and warmly welcomed filibustering aid from France in the time of the revolution.”

Born in 1837, he grew up in the Old Dry Dock section of Manhattan. He learned his trade on the notoriously dangerous waters of Hell Gate, New York City, and said that he could “take any ship through it in any wind that blew.” It was here he got his first nickname – Daredevil John. A sailor and Hell Gate Pilot, Johnny was in many ways a rebel without a cause, that is, until he found his cause in Cuba’s 19th century War of Independence. After a long and varied carrier, at sixty-one years of age he jumped into the Cuban war effort with gusto. Johnny commanded fifteen expeditions (laden with guns, dynamite, soldiers and supplies) to the soon to be island republic. At the end of the war of 1895 O’Brien found himself captaining “The Alfredo” – the first vessel in the Cuban Navy. Speaking to a reporter, staring at the Cuban flag waving from the ship’s mast, he said with a glint in his eye, “now I fly under my own flag.

The film, “A Captain Unafraid”, was completed on a shoestring budget with the help of many supportive parties. Shooting in the United States was financed through the crowd funding website Indiegogo, though our Indiegogo campaign in April 2014 was shut down for being in breach of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Among other things, I had to sign forms saying I wasn’t in the pay of the Cuban government! All mention of Cuba had to be removed from the funding campaign before we could continue. The Cuban portion of our filming was done with the authorization of the Union Of Artists and Writers In Cuba. It took nine months of patience and diligence to get the backing of the Cuban authorities.

In June 2014, after three weeks filming in Cuba, it was a wonderful thing to be sitting in the backyard of the home of José Antonio Quintana, the historian whose original article inspired my journey. On our last day in Ciego de Ávila (where Señor Quintana is a professor) we were brought on an excursion to Lazaro Lopez. This is the location where the leaders of the Cuban revolutionary forces gathered and mapped out their plan of attack just before the war of ‘95. Drowned in sweat, in the middle of a field holding a glide-cam, I listened to a veritable torrent of information flow out of both José Quintana and historian Sixto Espinosa concerning the war of 1895 and Johnny’s participation in it. On our way back to José’s home the thunderclouds gathered and soon the rain poured down. An hour later, after the storm had passed, sitting in Jose’s backyard, that’s when it really hit that we’d come full circle. From notion to motion, to motion picture, and back again to sedentary position.

Our filming of the documentary has taken us up the San Juan River to the site of the only naval battle of the war of ’95, hacking through overgrowth deep in the Cuban countryside to get a glimpse of the water. San Juan, Cienfuegos is where Johnny captained the tug, “The Three Friends”, to a narrow victory in a run-in with three Spanish gunboats. We have sent drones up over Cavan’s lakes and careered through Hell Gate, New York, in a little tug called “The Bronx” in pursuit of the bright trail of Dynamite Johnny’s ghost.

Filming was finished up proper on the 27th of September 2015. Killinkere and Lough Oughtar, County Cavan, was where the last of filming was done. Cavan was a more appropriate port to dock than you might think. Even though the Breffni County is land-locked and lake dappled, Killinkere is where Johnny’s parents emigrated from in 1831.

In Cork, graphic artist John O’Leary has been illustrating various episodes from Johnny’s life, such as, when he was stuck in an electrical storm in the gulf of Mexico with sixty tons of dynamite in his ship’s hold. This was before dynamite was denatured (in other words it would often explode with the slightest movement). The dynamite was loaded while Johnny’s vessel, “The Rambler”, was anchored at the Statue of Liberty. En route the expedition got stuck in an electrical storm and Johnny had to single-handedly tie down the dynamite, as it had begun to roll loose. Typically, he had failed to inform the crew of the fiery cargo stored in the ships hold, so he couldn’t employ their help. When the expedition finally reached Colombia O’Brien noted that the other sailors would have ended his life when they saw the boxes of “sudden death” being unloaded, “had they not been suffering considerably from heart failure.” John O’ Leary’s drawings will be used to illustrate four animated sections of the documentary.

Twenty-six people were interviewed in the course of filming, though unfortunately eleven other interviews didn’t make the cut. In New York, we interviewed three sea captains, historians, authors, maritime experts, and an alleged gun running Irish priest who, for the last fifty years, has lived a stone’s throw from Dynamite Johnny’s childhood home. Father Pat Maloney, another infamous figure from the Lower East Side, was once described by British Army intelligence as the underground general of Irish Republican Army gunrunning activities in the United States. He was imprisoned in the late 1990s for his part in the fifth largest armoured car robbery in U.S. history. In 2012 a New York Times article entitled “A Priest Unafraid of Trouble,” quoted Father Pat as saying, “I never broke a law but have circumvented most of them.” He currently says Mass at St. Bridget’s Church, Tompkins’s Square every Sunday. Given that the first chapter of Johnny’s autobiography is entitled “The Lure Of Troubled Waters” and that the book itself is named “A Captain Unafraid,” it was enlightening to get the take of a man some claim was associated with gun runnings, Black Panthers and the quelling of the Tompkins Square Riots.

The great granddaughters of Johnny O’Briien, Cynthia East and Kristin Agar

The subtitle of Johnny’s ghost written autobiography, “A Captain Unafraid“, is “The Strange Adventures of ‘Dynamite’ Johnny O’ Brien“, and following in O’Brien’s wake has certainly proved strange. “The Ear Inn” in Lower Manhattan was where we interviewed Johnny’s great granddaughters, Cynthia East and Kristin Agar. The pub was chosen, inadvertently, after a long day visiting various Johnny related sites in Manhattan. Strangely, the owner of the bar turned out to be a direct descendant of General Philip Sheridan, and thus, Dynamite Johnny. Johnny was a first cousin of General Philip Sheridan of American Civil War fame. O’Brien’s family were (according to the autobiography) “friends, neighbors, and indeed related to the parents of General Philip Sheridan.” Co-owner of the pub, Gary Sheridan, whose family all hail from Killinkere, County Cavan, is as burly and blue eyed as Dynamite Johnny himself.

The United States government, for its part, chose Johnny as the man to captain the resurrected battleship U.S.S. Maine to its final resting place, three miles out from Havana Harbor in 1912 (fifteen years after the Spanish-American/Cuban War). The Maine was the reason the U.S. entered the hostilities, and the U.S. authorities had hounded Johnny’s gun running expeditions up and down the East Coast of America. Johnny captained the vessel in his position as chief Havana Harbor pilot.

Though forgotten in our own time, in his own era he was hailed as a hero by the government of Cuba and eventually by the American establishment. After the war the Cuban government threw Johnny a lavish birthday dinner every year for the rest of his life. Moving pictures were commissioned of his funeral that were shown “throughout the island republic when he died.” The government even footed the bill for his funeral and wake. The raucous sea captain died without a penny to his name, having burnt all his money in the fireplace of his home in Kearney, New Jersey. It was twenty years later that a gravestone was finally placed on his grave with contributions collected by “The Times Of Cuba” newspaper.

Campbell’s of Broadway has seen many famous, and infamous funerals, including, that of, boxer Jack Dempsey, Beatle John Lennon, writer Tennessee Williams, of late, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of old “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Brien. Having died on June 20th 1917 at “Hotel America”, 105 East Fifteenth Street, Johnny was waked at Campbell’s on Broadway. He was buried soon after, at Sailor’s Cemetery, City Island, with the Cuban government in charge of the services, a few short paces from the waters he sailed so often on.

The documentary, “A Captain Unafraid”, will hit the film festival circuit in June 2016.

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